On May 17, 2005, the Palestine-Israel Journal held a round-table
discussion on Civil Society at the American Colony Hotel in East
Jerusalem. The participants were Prof. Munther Dajani, the
Political Science and Diplomatic Studies department and director of
the Sartawi Center for the Advancement of Peace and Democracy,
al-Quds University; Terry Boullatta, Palestinian Agricultural
Relief Committee and head of the board of the Women's Study Center
in the East Jerusalem Palestinian Center for Peace and Democracy;
Prof. Benjamin Gidron, School of Management and director of the
Israeli Center for Third Sector Research, Ben-Gurion University;
and Rolly Rosen, organizational consultant for Shatil, the New
Israel Fund's Empowerment and Training Center for Social Change
Organizations in Israel. The moderators were: Prof. Yoav Peled,
Political Science Department of Tel Aviv University, and Dr. Nadia
Nasser-Najjab, consultant, the Canadian International Development
Yoav Peled: Good afternoon, welcome to everyone and thank
you for participating. Our first question relates to the concept of
civil society itself. The concept is a fairly contested one.
One notion defines civil society as the entire social sphere that
is not a state, i.e., everything that is not included in the
concept of the state is defined as civil society. In this
definition, what is thought of as civil society is primarily the
market. This is the traditional liberal definition.
The other definition says that civil society is a social sphere
that is autonomous of both the state and the market. In other
words, this is the sphere that sometimes is referred to as the
third sector - third because it is not the state and not the
market. Being public, it is different from the market. Being
voluntary, it is different from the state, and is conducted mostly
by voluntary associations that work to promote all kinds of public
causes on a voluntary basis.
Sometimes civil society is used to describe these sectors of
society and sometimes to describe the whole society where such a
sector exists. Let's try to address this issue of the definition of
civil society that everybody believes should guide our discussion
Munther Dajani: In my view, civil society is people taking
things into their own hands. The best example is the Palestinian
case. In the absence of an authority and with the presence of
occupation, civil society was able to move and take things into
their own hands, and became very effective in providing much-needed
services to Palestinian public society. They were able to lobby
overseas with the international community, to raise money, and to
solve many of the immediate problems for Palestinian people at the
This is the best example of a very active and successful civil
society movement that was able to replace or fill the vacuum of an
authority. The occupation was not interested in providing
much-needed public services in rural areas, and the Palestinian
people took things into their own hands and were able to provide
its community with the basic needs.
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: Addressing the daily needs of the
people. So there are differences in terms of responsibilities
between civil society in a state and in an occupied
Munther Dajani: In a state it takes a traditional role that
everybody agrees on.
Benjamin Gidron: There are many ways of looking at civil
society, even within states.
Munther Dajani: Yes, but there are parameters that you
expect them to work within. In the case of Palestine, they broke
all the parameters within which they were supposed to be
Yoav Peled: Would you say that this case is a situation
where there is no state, and therefore civil society takes on
responsibilities, including those that are traditionally conducted
by the state? Or another way of looking at it is to say that there
is a state, the state is the Israeli occupation, and then civil
society works against the state, not instead of the state.
Munther Dajani: No. Civil society did not work against the
state by any means. They came to take over the responsibilities of
the state that the state was not delivering to the people. There is
a difference. Our civil society was not used as a resistance
movement to rid us of occupation. All through the 1970s and 1980s,
it took on the role of the government. It substituted for the
government and provided services to the people.
Benjamin Gidron: I think people today think about civil
society as mostly the organizational life outside of the state and
the market, but not exclusively the organizational life or
associational life as it also includes activities by individuals
that are doing things voluntarily.
Abie Nathan (who ran the Voice of Peace pirate radio station in the
1970s and 1980s - ed.) is an example of somebody who had no
organization but took a bold step out of any context when he flew a
plane to Egypt in the pursuit of peace. So it is not just
organizations. However, as you rightfully pointed out, the bulk of
civil society is organizational.
In some areas it replaces state services even within states. It
initiates new services, new ideas and new ventures. It also opposes
the state where the policy is inadequate or inappropriate. In
addition, it also deals with people's wants, wills and wishes, such
as the entire area of hobbies and sports and recreation.
Civil society borders both on the market and the government. Its
activities mean a lot in terms of politics, but also in terms of
economics and the market. Many activities start as voluntary
activities, but then become commercialized. So this sphere is not a
fixed one. It is always moving. People sometimes equate it to an
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: I think it is very much related to what
Munther was just talking about. In the beginning, Palestinian
society was based on a voluntary civil society. It was like a
social movement. Then it was transformed into organizations to
serve the people and to resist occupation.
Rolly Rosen: When we in Shatil speak about civil society,
our working definition is mostly about social-change organizations.
This is a much narrower definition than the one you, Yoav, were
suggesting. In the book published by Professor Gidron's Center for
Third Sector Research, Ben-Gurion University, you define civil
society as third-sector or non-profit organizations which are not
getting money from the government. That excludes organizations
which do a lot of service-provision and get money from the
government. Usually, these are the social-change organizations. You
can also take the definition which says civil society has to
challenge the government or the common, traditional, accepted
norms. These are the organizations we usually work with.
Terry Boullatta: As I understand, there are three sectors
here. We have the government, the people and, in the middle, civil
society whose job supposedly is to monitor government efficiency in
servicing the people, subsidizing when the government is not doing
a good job, and standing up when the government is doing a bad
Rolly Rosen: There is also the market.
Benjamin Gidron: People are the basis of the society.
Terry Boullatta: Still, when it comes to politics, you have
the people's voice electing the government. Then you have the
people who monitor civil society and who monitor those elected for
efficiency, transparency, and development procedures.
Civil society has lots of things to monitor and to subsidize when
the government is failing. As in the Palestinian case - in the
absence of a state - civil society has to cover service delivery
and has to stand up when the authority or government is not doing
what it is supposed to do or what it has been elected to do.
Munther Dajani: In political science, it is not accepted
that civil society monitors because a government is supposed to be
monitored by the people during an election, by the people's
participation in electing and choosing the right candidates. Civil
society cannot do that because it would be trespassing into a
governmental area. Any democratic government has to have checks and
balances within itself.
Terry Boullatta: That's according to the book, but the norms
are that civil society is the one that interferes, monitors and
makes scandals whenever there is no transparency. They have an
important role to play. There are lots of international
organizations - such as Amnesty International - for whom monitoring
is an important role.
Benjamin Gidron: One of the major characteristics of civil
society is its diversity and pluralism. Each civil society is
comprised of a whole variety of organizations and activities.
Some of these organizations deal with monitoring government. But I
would agree that this is not the role of the entire civil
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: But some do as a specialty. I think we
have already made a smooth transition to our second question - the
relationship between state and civil society.
Munther Dajani: It depends on where. In the United States,
in England, in other developed nations, the relationship between
these institutions are well organized and well defined.
When we speak about pluralism, we are talking about everybody's
right to voice his/her concern regarding any particular issue,
whether it's a neighborhood watch or a neighborhood children's park
or whatever, up to monitoring the government. When living in a
developed country, I know I have the right to write my congressman
or representative and voice my case and be effective in such a way
that I might be able to change his mind.
In other countries, in third-world countries, this role is not
present. On the contrary, look what is happening in Egypt. Look at
what happened in Algeria. The Palestinian case is even more
complicated and unique because civil society was replacing the
government and the Palestinian Authority (PA), and when the PA
came, there was a lot of friction between the government and civil
society organizations. There was a problem of mandate. What is
happening on the ground now? Arab leaders think they cannot go
wrong. When civil society takes matters into its own hands, they
use the military. Civil society is not allowed to do what is taken
for granted in the first world.
This is a very serious problem because there are NGOs. Yet these
NGOs in third-world countries are not only regulated by the
government, but are created by the government. So civil society
starts to reflect what the government wants rather than what the
society wants, and when they don't, they are in trouble.
Yoav Peled: Are you saying democracy is really a
precondition for the existence and activity and freedom of civil
unther Dajani: Definitely. Not democracy alone, but
democracy and pluralism - and a pluralistic society not meaning
many political parties, but rather that any civil organization is
able to reach and influence the decision-makers.
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: I disagree that democracy is a
precondition. Sometimes civil society is a precondition for
Munther Dajani: But in a dictatorship, civil society will be
crushed. We have seen that again and again. We saw it in Chile and
Nicaragua and many other South American governments, as well as in
the Arab world.
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: If we agree that social movements are
part of civil society…
Munther Dajani: Of course…
Terry Boullatta: It's like the chicken and the egg. One of
civil society's goals is implementing and guaranteeing democracy.
It cannot wait for democracy as a precondition.
Look at the Palestinian case. Civil society worked for the
promotion of democracy before and after the arrival of the PA, so
it is not a precondition. On the contrary, it is one of its goals,
along with developing tools in order to achieve that goal.
Benjamin Gidron: I think civil society is time- and
geography-dependent. In Poland, in the 1970s and 1980s, during a
totalitarian regime, it was civil society that broke the regime
down and created the famous velvet revolution.
In some countries, in totalitarian regimes, the role of civil
society is, first of all, to create a system where the government
recognizes that sphere that Yoav was talking about - that sphere of
voluntary organizations where people can organize, can voice their
concerns, their wishes and wills, etc. In totalitarian regimes,
such a sphere does not exist because the state takes care of
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: Iran is a good example.
Benjamin Gidron: Yes. So it depends on time and geography.
Once there is a democracy, the roles change. Then you have a much
more open arena for more activities, more interventions.
Rolly Rosen: What you are saying here raises an interesting
question of how much civil society is a creation that comes from
within society and answers its needs for radical criticism. It is
an invention of the Western world …
Terry Boullatta: An imposed one.
Rolly Rosen: It is the way Western society has found to
interfere in what is happening in the third world. Rather than
giving money to governments, it now gives to NGOs for different
reasons, thinking they are more efficient and maybe less corrupt.
Some civil societies in third-world countries are kind of imposed,
or an invention that doesn't really come up from within. I think,
in both Palestine and Israel - especially when we speak about
social-change organizations - most are funded by outside
This raises many questions about what it means to the society and
how it affects us, whether civil society is really coming from the
bottom up and how much it actually expresses authentic needs and
ideas in the society.
Munther Dajani: If there is a dictatorship, then civil
society changes its role to resistance to that dictatorship in
order to disseminate democracy. That brings it into confrontation
with the political system. The role of civil society becomes
breaking out of the parameters of the dictatorship or the
authoritarian system. We saw that under Augusto Pinochet. Civil
society was being broken down in Chile and people were fighting
against him, although he was backed by the big powers, especially
the U.S.A. Yet civil society took upon itself the role of fighting
the system. That right did not come from within the system. It came
from the right of the Chilean people to defend their own human
rights, human dignity, equality, and all the rights that people
There is a difference between somebody who was born in a democratic
system and feels these are granted to him by the Constitution. It
is a different mentality.
Yoav Peled: I would like to move on now to the current
situation in Israel where people are fighting intensely against the
planned withdrawal from Gaza and are engaging in all kinds of
things which they claim are legitimate civil society
They are criticizing the government as being authoritarian. They
claim they are fighting for their right to protest and resist in a
legitimate way. For instance, yesterday they blocked major highways
all over the country saying, This is our way of protesting. The
rhetoric is definitely the rhetoric of civil society. They say they
are doing exactly what you said civil society sometimes can and
should do - that is, fight an authoritarian government for the
human and political rights of the population.
Is this an example of civil society activity and, in that sense,
legitimate? Or does this go beyond the boundaries of legitimate
civil society activity? Or maybe it is not part of civil society at
Rolly Rosen: I think the answer is yes and no. According to
my definition of civil society, their actions are on the verge of
being illegal, but they are legitimate. There is a very thin line.
Where is violence legitimate?
I think the question is more about the values that guide them. What
is problematic for me is that they are now using the language of
civil society, democracy and human rights with regard to the
settlers, but are ignoring the fact that, since the outset, the
entire settlement movement was not a democratic one. And more than
that, morally and fundamentally, it ignores the rights of the
Palestinians. There is a basic contradiction in that they are using
the language and tools of a democratic civil society, but the
values they want to protect are not universal human rights.
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: Exactly. How can we say that values are
good or bad? I think we have to refer to international law. When
civil society moves to bring down an authoritarian regime, it is
because they can cite human rights stipulated in international law.
So referring to international law, the settlers are illegal in the
first place, at least from a Palestinian perspective.
Munther Dajani: This is exactly the point. There is a
contradiction between being democratic and being an occupier. You
can't have your cake and eat it too.
Settlers are using civil society tools to fight the Israeli system.
They are using legal means and they are within their boundaries,
but the whole thing is based on something wrong - occupation. They
are trying to legitimize occupation by using civil society tools to
legitimize their actions.
Benjamin Gidron: I think civil society is composed of groups
and people that not all of us like. They are diverse. Some of them
we like and some we don't. I agree that they are using legal or
legitimate means that verge on being illegal, and they are using
the language of civil society. But their value system contradicts
anything that civil society and democracy believes in.
If each group moves in the direction it thinks is important and
there is no overarching system, there is simply anarchy. Civil
society needs government to exist. It cannot replace government.
What these people are trying to do is to take on the role of
government and impose their will, even after it was voted down in
Munther Dajani: For me, anarchy is not necessarily a bad
thing. It means everybody knowing their responsibility to such a
degree of perfection that they don't need regulation.
Benjamin Gidron: Where have you seen a system like that
lately? Somebody has to make the rules. Who decides on those
Yoav Peled: Maybe we should say a few words about the role
of Israeli civil society in opposing the occupation over the
Rolly Rosen: It has not been very successful.
Yoav Peled: But the opposition is still there.
Rolly Rosen: I think a certain group within civil society
has been trying to do many things in different ways, and the forms
have evolved over the years from just protesting to monitoring and
so on. Over the past 20 years many more organizations have come
into existence. They are much more professional and they are doing
very varied work - media, lobbying, monitoring, and international
lobbying. There has been diversification and professionalization.
But the occupation is still there, so in the bottom line, we have
Munther Dajani: It has shrunk tremendously.
Yoav Peled: In the last four years, of course.
Terry Boullatta: In line with the shrinking of the political
Rolly Rosen: In reaction to the situation.
Benjamin Gidron: The issue of Israeli-Palestinian
relationship and the role of civil society in promoting cordial or
neighborly relationship goes back a long way. My colleague, Tamar
Hermann, would tell you that groups of this nature existed in the
1950s and 1960s, long before the occupation - Brit Shalom in the
1930s, New Outlook in the 1950s and 1960s, etc.
So there was always a kernel of activities, of people, groups,
organizations, that took this issue and tried to move it along. Of
course, since 1967, the issue has been much more in the forefront
and more organizations became active around it. I think, after the
Oslo agreement, there was really a surge of such
Rolly Rosen: People-to-people activities.
Benjamin Gidron: I think it goes hand in hand with the
political situation. It's not divorced from what happens on the
ground. It is influenced and it influences those activities.
In a study we did comparing Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland and
South Africa peace organizations in the mid-1990s, we found that
the most important role of civil society in all those cases was to
bring to the fore ideas about possible cordial and peaceful
relationships long before the politicians signed any
It is really preparing public opinion, preparing the people for a
different type of activity, a different type of relationship than
the military and antagonistic one. That was the major role of civil
society organizations in this area prior to the Oslo agreement.
Once the agreement was signed, there were many activities to try to
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: And cooperation…
Munther Dajani: Confidence-building measures…
Benjamin Gidron: And cooperation, and to create a new
reality. I think this is the strength of civil society. Civil
society does not assume long-term contracts for many centuries. It
tries to build bridges, to forge beginnings, to initiate new ideas.
This is where civil society is strong. It does not replace
politicians who have to sign the agreements, or business-people who
have to establish commercial relationships. It creates
collaborative relationships between societies.
Terry Boullatta: I object a bit, especially to your analysis
after Oslo. One of the problems we face is that civil society - not
just in Israel, but also in Palestine, and especially those civil
societies presented as the peace movement - declined after the
signing of the Oslo agreement.
The view was now we have the perfect time and the perfect
government on both sides to take the peace issue forward. Many of
the leaders of civil society competed to get into the government
and lead the peace process from within. My belief is that many of
the peace movement leaders went into the government thinking that
would be an extra step forward instead of just pushing from the
outside. That emptied the field of civil society that must always
monitor and back up the government that is moving towards peace,
and that gap benefited the right wing on both sides, especially
with the turning point of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin,
because they were well prepared.
In Palestine, many civil society representatives joined the PA and
became ministers. There was a major gap in the role of civil
society, and that opened the way for diverting attention from
peace, from which we have been suffering ever since. Even to
people-to-people. What was it? It was more or less directed by
government representatives, not by civil society.
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: Absolutely.
Benjamin Gidron: Yes.
Terry Boullatta: So let's stop bragging about civil society
and accept our commitment to continue as leaders in civil society
working for peace. Thinking we had the best governments to ever
have signed the Oslo agreement opened the gap for the right wing on
Munther Dajani: Israeli society is rooted deeply in the
military mindset. So when there is dissent, it's unacceptable.
People go back to the norm, which is what the government wants.
That's where the shrinkage in the peace movement came from.
Terry Boullatta: After Oslo, the withdrawal from Lebanon was
anti-militarization. Civil society was strong enough to influence
the militarization of the Israeli mentality and to bring Israel out
of South Lebanon, but it withdrew from the issue of Palestine,
thinking the government had already signed a peace agreement.
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: You are right that the signing of Oslo
caused some civil society to retreat a bit and work on other
issues. However, there is the problem of public opinion in the
media. During the second intifada, Israeli public opinion - except
for a few - thought that Palestinians don't want peace, so
everything Israelis do from there on is legitimized. The few
remaining organizations in the Israeli movement could not fight
this attitude because of the conformity among Israelis.
People-to-people was a product of Oslo, but it ignored the social
and political context. Funding agencies assumed that peace was
there, and so they started to support projects in that direction.
But I heard from Israeli movements fighting against the occupation
that donors refused to give them any funds for their action-based
activities to fight the occupation.
Yoav Peled: Because they said peace is already
Terry Boullatta: And now they have to back Sharon in his
great withdrawal plan. The same mistake is being repeated. Most
donors - American and European - want to subsidize Sharon's "heroic
withdrawal" from Gaza. Palestinian NGOs and civil society are
facing the same problems because funders would like to keep the Abu
Mazen government. They think it's the best that can be achieved as
of now. But civil society is being neglected in both societies for
different reasons, only one of which is outside Western
Benjamin Gidron: If you take money from Western powers, you
cannot expect them not to try to promote their interests when they
give their money.
Terry Boullatta: We also have to promote our interests. We
are the ones living here. That's the strength I would always
promote: how we Palestinians and Israelis, especially those working
in the peace movement, should promote joint planning, not just
activities, in order to present one position to the Western donors
at the end of the day.
Donor agencies have their political agenda which, often goes
against the wishes of the ordinary people and the outcome of the
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: International donors have now started
to think about this and move in that direction.
Yoav Peled: What direction?
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: Understanding that they cannot ignore
the political and social contexts. For example, the Canadians now
realize that with the cooperation issue, people-to-people
activities, a problem existed in terms of equality and of the
professionalism of the Palestinian NGOs compared to the Israeli.
They have now started a networking for peace to empower Palestinian
organizations. So the donors are now questioning and evaluating. In
the EU, they have evaluated their past experience. The Canadians
already have a program. The Norwegians also have made an
Rolly Rosen: What you are saying is something that was
discussed with the donors almost eight years ago. It's not
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: I don't think they ever listened
Munther Dajani: It started in Helsinki when we criticized
them. They were shocked because they were thinking they were doing
this to appease us and that things were going well.
There is a very serious problem among the donors. In the final
analysis, they want to appease the Israeli government.
Rolly Rosen: The Israeli government would not agree with you
Munther Dajani: Let me explain. The donors are meticulous
organizations, but they do have their political agendas that
sometimes depend on their definition of priorities. And their
definition of priorities is to keep their relations with Israel on
a very high level.
Donors know that if they get on the wrong side of the Israeli
government, a lot of problems can arise, and then they would feel
the heat of the U.S.A. They are also sensitive to the political
issues on the ground. I can give you many examples where the donors
withdrew from anything that Israel objected to, even
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: It's not a secret. People-to-people was
an Israeli donor agenda. It was in the Israelis' interest. Of
course, the donors probably did not intend it that way.
Terry Boullatta: They never considered the level of
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: They never considered the voices among
Palestinians saying that this set-up was not working. They never
listened. An example is the criteria for a proposal. First of all,
it should include an Israeli partner. Second, it should say
something about cooperation and that, at the end of the project,
the Palestinian and Israeli participants will have been led to love
each other. Then you get the funds.
When we used to recruit Palestinians for such projects, we would
tell them that the project was to change Israeli public opinion, to
convince them the occupation still existed. But on paper, that was
not the objective.
Benjamin Gidron: You had to write something else.
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: We had to write something else to get
Yoav Peled: Do you notice any difference in all of these
things after September 11?
Munther Dajani: There are a lot of differences. There has
been a complete re-evaluation of the definitions, not only of civil
society, but of major groups of civil society that were operating
in the Arab world. All of a sudden, the word Islam became a bad
word, and working with Islamic groups took on negative
connotations. NGO groups working on the ground started to be
sensitized to that.
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: Is there a difference with
Munther Dajani: Of course, because of the definition of
terrorism. Suddenly all Palestinians are being defined by Sharon as
Benjamin Gidron: I would like to put this issue of funding
in a broader context. Since the 1990s, the big high-tech
revolution, there has been a tremendous growth in funding and
philanthropy by the rich West in the third world. There are new
foundations. The existing foundations are richer and are giving
more money. This brings out all kinds of issues of intervention, of
people who have the resources in countries where they think they
know what's best for them. So this is not just happening here. It's
an international issue and an international problem.
I think what needs to be done is to have a new type of relationship
between the funders and the grantees. There needs to be a new type
of dialogue where the funders are not sitting up there and
dictating what they think should take place. The funders have the
right to say: "These are the values we want to promote," but the
grantees have the right and obligation to tell them: "This is
possible only in such and such a way or this is not possible, and
we have other values as well that we would like to promote."
There needs to be a new kind of dialogue. Because of the
disparities between the two societies, it is a legitimate claim for
Palestinian civil society to have projects separate from Israeli
projects. There is no need for everything to be done
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: This is also related to the state-civil
society relationship. The Palestinians tried to regulate the
funding issue among Palestinians. There was a ministry called the
Ministry of NGOs which attempted - I was a member of a follow-up
committee at the ministry - to at least deal with the issue of
registration of the organizations.
But to regulate this relationship of civil society and donors
through the state, I think the donors should have listened to
influential figures who were saying that this was dangerous, that
there was no kind of control, and that things were going wrong. The
projects never achieved their set goals. So I think the donors are
obliged to listen to some people in the field, even if they were
not officials, people who were involved in so many projects and who
raised their voices saying this is what we see on the ground. But I
think they have started to listen now.
Munther Dajani: In all honesty, it was disastrous to create
an NGO ministry. It's a contradiction in terms.
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: That's what I'm saying. It didn't
Munther Dajani: There is no function for an NGO ministry.
Some NGOs are not credible. They operate under false pretenses;
they have visiting cards and mobile phones. They register as
Palestinian NGOs; they take $2,000 out of $100,000, and they are
happy. These organizations were created by some Israeli NGOs. And
there are prominent Palestinians who have accepted playing that
role, and this is the problem.
What is needed to regulate them is the auditing of the Ministry of
Finance and a section in the Ministry of the Interior. There was an
issue about whether to register in Israel or Palestine.
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: That's for Jerusalem…
Munther Dajani: Of course. Even in Ramallah, you can
register in Jerusalem if you have a Jerusalem ID and an NGO in
Ramallah. But you can also, as a Jerusalemite, register in Ramallah
to escape the monitoring of the Israeli government. It works both
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: There is a problem with registration
among Palestinians, due to the fact that there is the PA and there
is still occupation. Things are not regulated. The problem is also
that, because of the occupation, the people in charge cannot
function. Even the police cannot regulate traffic. We cannot
regulate our state-related issues because of the occupation. People
can easily not listen if the basic things of daily life are not
there. How can they trust the government or trust an authority?
There is a big mess.
Terry Boullatta: It's not because the occupation interferes
on a daily basis. The occupation has undermined the Authority to
the level that a policeman cannot even issue a ticket or he can be
The problem is the occupation, but a different aspect of it. Abu
Mazen can promote peace and speak out against missiles in Gaza, and
the next day Sharon is challenging Abu Mazen again and again.
That's how the occupation is affecting our Authority and
intervening in daily life. Imagine now with Hamas. We in civil
society are afraid of the interference of Hamas in the coming
elections because, in the social agenda, it's a win-win situation
for them, not for us.
We began calling for secularization long ago, including in the
Declaration of Independence. If Hamas representatives will be,
let's say, at most a third of the Palestinian Legislative Council
(PLC) that means the social agenda might be different. We are very
afraid of that.
And while we are talking and working hard to undermine the power of
Hamas, from the local council elections to representation in trade
unions, to the preparation for greater losses for Hamas in the
upcoming elections for the PLC, and then we wake up to [Israeli
Foreign Minister] Silvan Shalom threatening if Hamas
This is total intervention into Palestinian issues, and, in a way,
they are empowering Hamas after all we're doing, and they are
affecting the role of civil society.
Benjamin Gidron: In Israel we do not have a Minister of
NGOs, but we do have a Registrar of Amutot. The former registrar
imposed a new regulation called the Appropriate Management
Regulation. In other words, if an organization was not
appropriately managed according to his standards, he could withdraw
the benefits or the registration even of a non-profit organization.
The former one used this kind of power that he was given by the
government law mostly against Arab NGOs.
Terry Boullatta: Especially in Jerusalem.
Benjamin Gidron: For political reasons. The current one is a
totally different person, and I think he's much fairer and is not
using his power inappropriately.
Terry Boullatta: In East Jerusalem, civil society is
diminishing because of that registrar.
Benjamin Gidron: I know the implications of his activities
in some of the organizations in the Galilee. I know they have lost
a lot of activity.
Munther Dajani: And funds.
Rolly Rosen: There is another way in which the government
tries to control what is happening with the NGOs, which goes back
to the outside funding, and I think it makes the governments of
both sides very nervous.
In your case [Palestinians], it was the NGO ministry. In Israel,
the right wing did not feel the donors were trying to appease the
Israeli government; to the contrary, they felt the donors were
supporting Palestinian organizations, and that only leftist
organizations, such as Peace Now and B'Tselem and all the
human-rights organizations, were getting funding from abroad. They
tried to pass a law saying that even if you want to submit a
proposal to an outside source, you would have to get a permit from
the government. They said that the EU and other governments were
interfering in Israeli internal politics, so the government should
control who gets the money. There was a lot of pressure; Shatil did
a lot of lobbying and the other NGOs fought against it. And the law
did not pass.
The fact is that, since the 1980s, and especially since the fall of
the Berlin Wall, agencies that would previously have given money to
governments are now giving it to civil society organizations. That
makes governments very uneasy because they are losing control over
a lot of money meant for development. I'm not sure it's better to
give money to the government, but this creates a lot of friction
between the government and NGOs.
Terry Boullatta: Perhaps we should go back to the
Palestine-Israel civil society and see how the international agenda
is affecting us positively or negatively.
The more you empower the Israeli government - this government with
its Gaza redeployment plan, while buying time to build more
settlements and the separation wall - at the end of the day, you
are really undermining the possibility for a real peace
I think we should be able to cooperate more with Israeli civil
society - mainly those who are openly promoting a two-state
solution and the peace movement - especially in joint planning, and
jointly raising our voices to those international donors about what
needs to be funded. This will strengthen the voice of peace. It is
one of the obligations - not just moral, but political - that we
have in our respective societies.
Yoav Peled: Right now there is a very unfortunate kind of
process occurring. There is very strong pressure on the part of
many Palestinians to boycott Israeli universities. Our universities
are not only part of civil society, but also probably the most
peace-oriented sector of our society, even if there is a lot to be
As Baruch Kimmerling has pointed out in the context of the debate
over the boycott, in the current climate of opinion in Israel, the
universities remain almost the last bastion of free thought and
free speech. Most of the humanistic and dissident voices in Israel
come from the universities, or are supported by their students and
Munther Dajani: Point of correction. We didn't have anything
to do with that. It's Israeli academics such as Ilan Pappe.
Terry Boullatta: Munther, you have to understand that the
British are being selective. They are not calling for a boycott
against all Israeli academics and universities. They have been
smart enough this time to select specific universities, especially
Bar-Ilan which is opening a branch in a major illegal
Yoav Peled: They are actually withdrawing from that.
Terry Boullatta: Maybe that British threat or decision
allowed this part of Israeli civil society to retreat from such a
Yoav Peled: I am not talking about the British. I am talking
about many Palestinian groups. Two people especially, Omar
Barghouti and Lisa Taraki, who teach at Bir Zeit University, are
promoting a total boycott.
Terry Boullatta: I talked to Lisa. She held a press release
and declared: "We are going to boycott Israeli academics or
institutions that are feeding the occupation, like Bar-Ilan opening
a branch in an illegal settlement."
Yoav Peled: That's not the way I understood it. I
participate in a group of Palestinian and Israeli academics, and
there has been a very fierce debate within that group. Most of the
Palestinian participants were angry at those Israelis in the group
who did not support the boycott, a total boycott, not the specific
British boycott. You are talking about the need to cooperate, but
you cannot ask people to boycott us and then tell us we should
Munther Dajani:Exactly. This is a very important issue. If
you go for cooperation for peace, take a stand and go for
cooperation for peace. You cannot want a little bit of cooperation
here but not there because you are against occupation.
Rolly Rosen: You can choose your partners.
Yoav Peled: What are you saying?
Munther Dajani: I am saying we should keep politics out of
Terry Boullatta: You cannot.
Munther Dajani: Yes, you can. Let me explain. In academia
you are searching for the truth, and the truth lies in research and
scientific cooperation between all parties - not two ethnic groups,
not three ethnic groups, all of humanity. Academia is for the
overall improvement of societies as a whole. You cannot mix a
specific case pertaining to the occupation with the overall benefit
of Palestinian society.
It is no secret that the Palestinians are the ones who benefit from
cooperation because one, Israelis are much more advanced, and two,
for most of the research that is done, they have all the equipment.
I could take you to their universities and then to al-Quds
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: This is exactly the point, why they
have all the equipment. No cooperation before separation.
Munther Dajani: We put this in the proposals - since you
have the equipment and we don't, in order to achieve parity, we
should get the equipment.
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: Change the status quo.
Munther Dajani: The best way to change the status quo is to
end the occupation, period. We don't disagree on that. But what we
should agree on is what to do in the meantime. We want to pressure
Israelis into ending the occupation. But if you boycott them, how
can you open a dialogue to convince them?
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: We don't want to boycott talking to
Israelis and conducting dialogues. But why should we cooperate on
academic research when there is no equality at all, and it is due
to the occupation?
Yoav Peled: Is there cooperation right now?
Munther Dajani: By definition, cooperation is opening a
dialogue in order to let the others know your needs, and they would
share their concerns with us. Here you are mixing oranges and
squash, and they really don't mix.
Occupation is something we should all fight against. Most Israeli
academic institutions are with us and have released statements
calling for an end to occupation. Why boycott them and prompt them
to work against us when now they are working with us? This is the
irony of the situation.
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: It's conditional that they have to
cooperate in research. It's a matter of principle if they are
Benjamin Gidron: Occupation is bad because it's bad for
Munther Dajani: None of us convinced them that occupation is
bad. They saw it for themselves.
Terry Boullatta: Israeli academics are promoting the idea of
a Palestinian demographic bomb. That's why they are backing the
government and reinforcing the occupation. They selected the
University of Haifa because of Prof. Arnon Sofer (who deals with
the demographic question - ed). Academia is not innocent at the end
of the day. Let's not be naive about it.
Munther Dajani: They chose Bar-Ilan and Haifa because there
is a serious problem in Haifa University where the government has
intervened in an academic project. It's about the massacre that
apparently took place at Tantura in 1948. This is the issue about
Haifa University, and the president of the university took a
political stand. They were following a government directive.
But when the president of Ben-Gurion University got a letter
telling him to fire a certain professor, he told them: "We don't
work for you. We work for the Israeli society." That's why
Ben-Gurion University is not being boycotted and will not be
Terry Boullatta: We don't want to boycott all of Israel or
all academia, but academia is not totally innocent with regard to
politics. You should select whom you talk to and what you are
After all these years of dialogue, since Oslo and even before Oslo,
what happened is that Palestinian funds coming through Israelis
have enforced the occupation. We have to be selective about
boycotts, knowing that in South Africa, for example, nothing helped
until international pressure was brought to bear on the government
of the white minority.
Munther Dajani: We are mixing two things. Fifteen years ago,
the Palestine Higher Council of Education took a decision to
boycott all Israeli universities unless Palestinians had access to
Israeli universities and were treated on a basis of parity.
What Omar and Lisa are doing is different. There are people now who
have cooperated and continue to cooperate with Israel, but they
have selected two institutions with whom not to cooperate because
of their actions on the ground. So we should differentiate between
the Higher Council ruling which is still in effect, and between
academics that support cooperation, but are taking a stand against
a specific institution.
Yoav Peled: They are taking a stand against all Israeli
universities. I was part of this whole discussion. They got very
mad at me for saying I am opposed to it. The British applied it to
two universities. But they asked for a total boycott.
Munther Dajani: I'm aware of all these problems because I am
the coordinator of the Rectors Conference between Israelis and
Palestinians. The British did not take this from Lisa. Ilan Pappe
has been working on the British for the last two years. This is a
personal success of his group. That does not affect Ben-Gurion's
position or the Hebrew University's position.
Benjamin Gidron: The idea that the resources that Israeli
universities receive are only for projects where there is
cooperation with Palestinians and this is how occupation is
strengthened is fallacious. Most Israeli researchers who get
funding from abroad are not engaged in projects with Palestinians.
Most research activity in Israel is totally unrelated and
definitely not dependent on cooperation with Palestinians. The
resources that some of us get for cooperation projects are very few
percentage-wise. So mixing those issues creates a wrong
Secondly, it is very offensive to me, as an Israeli academic, when
people begin to compare our academics and universities to the
situation in South Africa and that boycott. In South Africa, the
whole regime was illegitimate. When you make such a comparison, it
is with something that is totally illegitimate. If there is
recognition of Israel, then there cannot be a comparison with South
Africa. If there is an institution or an enterprise that
misbehaves, then, of course, they need to be singled out.
Terry Boullatta: Like Bar-Ilan.
Benjamin Gidron: It's a slippery slope. All of a sudden,
you're saying the only way to end occupation is like South Africa.
We boycotted them and then the whole system collapsed.
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: It's to end occupation.
Terry Boullatta: Why don't you ask us and ask the world to
stand with you and us in boycotting a university that is
reinforcing the occupation by opening a branch in an illegal
settlement 23 kilometers into the middle of the West Bank? That's
the position I ask for. That's all.
Benjamin Gidron: Bar-Ilan University has all kinds of
people. Boycotting all of them is, for me is a major affront to
Munther Dajani: One of them is Menachem Klein.
Nadia Nasser-Najjab: If people in Bar-Ilan who are against
the occupation would like to work with Palestinians on a different
basis, they could work on a personal level.
Yoav Peled: We need to say a few words of summary.
Terry Boullatta: First of all, there are challenges for both
Israeli and Palestinian civil societies. Both of them have been
Secondly, many of the civil society organizations in Israel have
benefited from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The
people-to-people projects are one example of how Israeli civil
society benefited at the account of Palestinian civil society. This
needs to be reviewed. We must deal with each other on a basis of
equality for the sake of real peace.
My position is still to call upon Israeli and Palestinian civil
society to not just work jointly, but to plan jointly for the sake
of the peace process.
There are many examples of things that we can plan and work on,
such as the issue of the Jerusalem Master Plan 2020, through which
the Israelis are diminishing any possibility for a Palestinian
capital there. That, of course, undermines the peace process. The
separation wall, human-rights violations, there are so many things
we can plan jointly and work on together.
Munther Dajani: I want to take up where Terry stopped and
interject a word of caution. Since the Israelis have killed our
dream for a Palestinian state, there has arisen the logic of
killing the Jewish Zionist dream of a Jewish state. There is a new
Palestinian civil movement asking to be annexed to Israel and to
let the demographic process take its course.
We cannot have a Palestinian state with the wall, with all the
latest things the Israelis have been doing on the ground.
Terry Boullatta: You mean a viable Palestinian state.
Rolly Rosen: What is happening now is important. I agree
with you that we should think together and collaborate, but we
should also see the points where both civil societies have to work
within their own constituencies and do very different things.
From what I know about Israeli civil society and peace
organizations, at a certain time, it was much easier for them to do
people-to-people projects and to meet with Palestinians than to go
to Israeli society, convince them about what is happening and try
to change their opinion. It is easier to meet with people who, at
least on the surface, you think you agree with than to convince
people within your own society with whom you very much
This is our most important challenge. I don't have any clear
answers as to how it can be done, but I think this is the important
role. There is the role of doing things together and building
infrastructure for peace.
A lot of the people-to-people projects were very naive. So we need
to do a lot of thinking about people-to-people projects and how we
can build an infrastructure for peace which does take into account
the context of political occupation and what is happening, and not
just to think that, if we meet on a personal basis and do research
together, we will live happily ever after.
In addition, each civil society has a big role to play in their own
society, some in things that relate to the conflict and some in
other things, such as women's issues and social justice and other
things that are connected, but are not necessarily related.
Benjamin Gidron: The role of civil society all over the
world is increasing, and people and governments can no longer
ignore it. We saw this recently in several countries, in Lebanon
and in the Ukraine, where civil societies changed regimes and
governments because these governments were not acting in a way that
most people liked.
This is a new force in the reality of the world at the beginning of
the 21st century. We would be wise - we Israelis and Palestinians -
to create conditions where civil society will say what most people
want, and there is no doubt in anybody's mind I think that most
people want what we all think about.
If civil society is wise enough to express these wills - not on a
sustained basis because civil society cannot, as a whole system,
run on a sustained basis - but even with several large
demonstrations, saying peacefully what needs to be done and in
which direction to move, I think it would definitely be an
I am an optimist by nature, so I would like to end on this